Puzzling round Tibet and Xinjiang


Things are looking pretty rough in Xinjiang, or Uighurstan if you prefer, at the minute. In fact, Urumqi looks worse than Ardoyne. Joking aside, though, it’s a major story and, though I can’t really claim any specialist knowledge, there are some aspects that have grabbed my attention.

Firstly, Dave speculates that “the left” will, in its majority, come out in defence of whatever the Chinese government does. I suspect that Dave may be confusing the Spartacist League with “the left”, or else he’s been paying too much attention to the kitsch leftists of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, who can use an idiosyncratic version of Stalinist geopolitics to justify supporting all sorts of rum characters. (To take just one recent example, the Lebanese Phalange, who can be decontaminated by the simple expedient of labelling them “The Cedar Revolution”.) But at the less eccentric end of the left, we have a strongly pro-Uighur article in Socialist Worker, which I would have expected given the SWP’s long-term support for Tibetan independence.

On a journalistic level, that’s fine. But I think we should be careful before demanding that Trot ideologues produce detailed programmatic positions. The thing about your Marxists is that an ideologue, at least an experienced one like Chris Harman or Sean Matgamna, can produce a 60-page blueprint for the Uighur revolution at the drop of a hat, with no more research involved than reading this morning’s Guardian and maybe spending half an hour on Wikipedia to fill in the gaps. This is because your Marxist ideologue is a master of such theoretical tools as the Dogmatic Schema, the Rhetorical Overstatement and the Tenuous Historical Analogy. If all else fails, you can fall back on such formulae as “We support the demands of the masses”, which worked really well for the Iranian left in 1979. Alternatively, you could try to put some knowledge to work alongside your formulae, which is why I quite liked this from the CWI, but it’s well known that nobody ever profited from trying to determine the facts.

My view is that you can sensibly talk about what demands you would raise if you were on the ground, and make those demands a bit sharper by strengthening your empirical knowledge, but beyond that I’m cautious. I’m cautious about pledging up-front support to a movement whose complexion and dynamics I’m deeply unsure about. I’m also cautious about sources – I know plenty of people on the Iranian exile left who are good and decent individuals, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily trust their judgement in all things, especially when they contradict each other or come out with sweeping statements about how the Iranian population is opposed to the Islamic Republic. I mean to say, I’ve heard Goretti Horgan say in public fora that there’s a pro-choice majority in the north of Ireland, and I’m reasonably sure that isn’t true, so it doesn’t hurt to be a little bit careful in areas that you know much less well.

That lengthy caveat out of the way, I hope you’ll excuse me for not presuming to pull a detailed blueprint out of my left ear. What I want to do, in the same spirit as Madam Miaow, is to offer a few impressions and what I think are some points worth thinking over.

The first thing that strikes me is that, compared to the similar events in Tibet last March, the international media have been remarkably understanding of the Chinese government. Partly this is because Beijing has been much cannier in its handling of the media – where last March Tibet was effectively closed to foreigners, and you could take your choice between editorials in the People’s Daily or emotive appeals from the Free Tibet movement, in this case there’s been plenty of access to Xinjiang. That has meant, inter alia, coverage of the Han workers attacked by Uighurs in the race riot, something that was effaced almost entirely during the Tibet events.

It also must be said that the Tibetans have PR advantages denied to the Uighurs. There is a large Tibetan diaspora in Europe and North America, many of whom speak fluent English. There is a large Uighur diaspora in the Stans, many of whom speak fluent Russian or Uzbek. The Tibetans have an internationally famous rock ‘n’ roll spiritual leader; the Uighurs have no recognisable leader. The Tibetans have been supported for decades by a highly committed solidarity movement that’s been very effective in promoting a romanticised image of Tibet; the Uighurs have had no such solidarity movement. The Tibetans are backed by Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Bono and Joanna Lumley; the Uighurs are supported by Hizb-ut-Tahrir, who aren’t exactly media darlings themselves, and by some pan-Turkic wingnuts in Istanbul, who are the sort of people you would invite on Newsnight if you actively wanted to discredit the Uighur cause. The Tibetans benefit from a 1960s view of Buddhism as a religion of peace and tolerance, which is only sustainable if you aren’t paying much attention to Burma or Sri Lanka. The Uighurs have the disadvantage of being of the Muslim persuasion, and it’s not all that easy to get idealistic Western reporters to swing behind uppity Muslims.

Beijing has been keenly aware of the last element at least, and has been keen to flag up the terrorist activities of some Uighur separatist groups, and tenuous links they claim to have uncovered to Osama. There appear to be much stronger links with the CIA and the Turkish Deep State, but the Chinese authorities are less keen to stress those. All this means that, while the Cold War tropes of anticommunism and Sinophobia have not been absent, Beijing has done rather better out of this than it might have expected.

So we now move to what has actually been going on. There has been some grandiose talk about the movement for democracy and self-determination, but the Urumqi events look to me at first glance like a race riot. The question is, whether it is just a race riot, and what are the underlying causes. After all, the Kosovo events of 1981 were essentially a race riot, but there was more to them than that, and the cack-handed response of the Yugoslav authorities helped to stoke up trouble for the future. And, as we know, race riots don’t happen for no reason.

Firstly, I think there’s a certain amount of guff to be cut through. There is an obvious and close parallel between Xinjiang and Tibet, which is why this blog recommends the following products: the Gongmeng report into the March 2008 events in Tibet, a complex and convincingly argued analysis from within China, and anything by Tsering Shakya, who’s been a consistent source of good writing on Tibetan politics.

To dispense with some mythology, it’s common to hear Tibetan advocates in the west talk in emotionally-charged terms about “cultural genocide”, which consists of two interlinked arguments: the first is that Tibetans are banned from expressing their identity, even in terms of freedom to speak their language or practice their religion; the second is that Beijing is following a deliberate policy of sending millions of Han colonists into ethnic minority areas so as to swamp the native population. The second I think is dubious, at least in the terms that it is usually framed, although large-scale immigration there certainly has been. I don’t think, anyway, that we have an analogue to the way that, during the Cultural Revolution, millions of Red Guards were sent to the furthest-flung parts of China to smash regionalism. The first charge is simply untrue. Chinese nationalities policy is closely modelled after Soviet nationalities policy, which means (Stalin’s wartime deportations notwithstanding) a policy of supporting, even celebrating, local identities and cultures while cracking down very hard on anything that looks like political separatism. Some nationalities – like the largest minority in China, the Zhuang – have done quite well out of this. It’s worked less well in practice for the Tibetans and the Uighurs.

What the nationalities policy means in Xinjiang is that Uighur and Kazakh are official languages (in the traditional Arabic script, rather than the Latin imposed in the 1950s), it means that Uighurs as a non-Han nationality are exempt from the one-child policy, that there is a special dispensation in Xinjiang allowing Muslims to become members of the Communist Party (as there is for Buddhists in Tibet) and the Party has followed an affirmative action programme to put Uighurs into top positions. Religion is a slightly different matter, and it does make Beijing nervous. As I’ve mentioned previously, the Catholic Church can’t operate legally in mainland China, and its adherents have to operate via the Patriotic Catholic Association, a body which agrees with all government policies and whose bishops are appointed by the Communist Party. (Actually, that sounds a bit like the SDLP.) Similiar arrangements prevail for Muslims and Buddhists. So even if minorities’ constitutional rights were fully implemented in practice – and I’m fairly sure they aren’t – there would be plenty to chafe against.

All this is not to say that the Uighurs or Tibetans do not have serious grievances, just that you have to try harder to discover what they are rather than just relying on hasbara from exile groups, which will, as is the way with exile groups, be geared towards evoking a particular reaction.

This is where I think the Gongmeng report is extremely important in terms of the answers the team retrieved from their fieldwork. Much of it makes sense to me, whether the authors are exploring generational shifts in identity, or whether they’re discussing the way corrupt bureaucrats sustain themselves in power by the bogey of “separatism” and the splittist Dalai clique. But what’s most important is how they concretely situate last year’s outburst of Tibetan nationalism in terms of China’s development strategy. Here’s a brief sample:

In the process of modernization, economic structures and political structures in Han areas and Tibetan areas have been made uniform. As “backward” areas, Tibetan areas had to catch up with “progressive” areas and keep up with the “modern”. But the Tibetan people have not had adequate opportunity or skills to respond. Large numbers of incomers and rapid social changes have brought conflicts to culture, lifestyles and even to values. In the past, contacts between Tibetan areas and the interior were often very limited, but the specially formulated development process opened up Tibetan areas in an instant, opening up for attack every single key area of nationalities’ life from the economy, power structure, religious life, lifestyle and population structures. When the Tibetan people have a sense of unfairness and loss in the economic and social changes resulting from the modernization process led by Han and by the state, this can strengthen yet further their ethnic identity and how they identify with their traditions, giving rise to conflict between the traditional and the modern, and conflict between the ethnicities.

In sum, to understand the 3.14 incident, the present in Tibetan areas must be understood, and close attention must be paid to the core question of the process of modernization in Tibetan areas. If it’s said that the modernization process of the Tibetan people is an irreversible historical trend, then how the Tibetan people and Tibetan areas progress toward modernization is worthy of in-depth consideration. The prominent contradictions and conflicts in Tibetan areas are not solely the remnants of history, they are also problems arising from the current situation in the path of modernization and the strength and manner of its implementation. From the 1989 incident until the 3.14 incident this year, an important dimension to social structures has been the adverse effects of the modernization process the core of which is the marginalization of the Tibetan people and the discontent this has brought.

It’s a long document, but well worth digesting in full. To simplify greatly, and here we’re passing over a wealth of empirical detail and historical context, the immediate locus of discontent is the central government’s Go West development strategy and the attendant dislocations. Cutting a long story short, the centre is basically putting forward modernisation as a panacea for the west’s underdevelopment, but this modernisation is being carried out with scant regard for the wishes of the nationalities in the west, and it further meshes with the explosive issue of immigration. You have all these enormous infrastructure projects being carried out in the west which bring in their wake an army of Han migrant workers. At the same time, rural poverty and economic growth in the urban centres is drawing Tibetan peasants into the towns looking for work. But once there, they find themselves at the bottom of the pile, having few marketable skills, often lacking fluency in Mandarin, often even illiterate in Tibetan. In towns with burgeoning Han populations, the Tibetan workers are unable to compete in the job market, and equally unable to return to a backward agricultural sector. So you have the same material conditions as in interior China, with peasants in places like Anhui becoming unskilled labourers in the towns, but with an added layer of national grievance.

Put all this together, and you have all the ingredients for an explosion of ethnic tensions, without even factoring in Han racism against minorities, which undoubtedly exists. This seems to me a plausible account of the underlying situation in Tibet, and I can’t imagine that Xinjiang is all that different.

So, to return to the start, where does that leave us? There isn’t really a solidarity movement to hand, and I’m not yet persuaded that there’s a movement on the ground that’s supportable. If the left press raises slogans about democracy, freedom of speech, religious freedom, self-determination for national groups – that’s all well and good, reiterating your basic ideas, as long as you understand what that means – that you’re raising the slogans you would raise if you were on the ground, and you hope there are some people on the ground saying similar things. Because when West European or North American leftists come out with lists of great-sounding “demands” in respect of Country X, I always wonder whether anybody in Country X is saying anything similar, although it would be nice if they were.

Other than that, I would again stress the danger of schematism. There are a whole lot of bad habits leftists tend to fall into on this sort of issue. One is the nineteenth-century Colonial Office reflex that says, “Ethnic tensions in Herzoslovakia? Let’s draw a line on a map!” I don’t know if there is a majority in Xinjiang for independence, as opposed to proper autonomy, but we don’t need to speculate very much to see what an independent Uighur state would look like – just look over the border at the Stans, a rotten bunch of despotates ruled by very much the same people who were in power under the Soviet Union, only without the Kremlin to restrain them.

The other danger is grandiosity, as when a race riot gets rhetorically transformed into a national liberation movement. It rings alarm bells with me if disgruntled Uighurs, rather than aiming their fire at the Chinese authorities, are attacking Han or Hui migrant workers who are just trying to earn a living. Apparently it doesn’t ring alarm bells with some on the left, either because they accept the Stalinist concept of the “oppressor nation” and the concomitant blurring of class lines, or because they belong to the spontaneist school of thought that says a race riot is an example of deflected class struggle. We would, I would suggest, get a different response if we were talking about Ukrainian attacks on Jews in 1920.

That will do for the time being. If you’re looking for definitive answers, I’m sorry I couldn’t provide any. But I hope I’ve raised some worthwhile questions.

Much more, as always, at Blood and Treasure.


  1. Phil said,

    July 16, 2009 at 7:19 am

    the nineteenth-century Colonial Office reflex that says, “Ethnic tensions in Herzoslovakia? Let’s draw a line on a map!”

    I think you misspelled “the twentieth-century Wilsonian national-self-determination liberal reflex”. The “let’s set the world free!” strand of liberal imperialism goes back quite a long way, and isn’t entirely discreditable – if you’re going to draw lines on a map, you could do a lot worse than post-Versailles Europe.

    As for what’s actually going on, I think you’re a bit gentle on the Chinese government; remember this, described by Jamie as “a policy almost calculated to produce indiscriminate rage”. (A hat tip of my own to Jamie, who’s been bringing the news from Xinjiang for some time.) I was once at a meeting addressed by an Armenian CP hack, who at one point explained that of course all the lessons in school are conducted in Russian, but parents who want to can send their kids to a Saturday morning Armenian school – pretty much what a lot of Poles do over here, in other words, with the difference that the name of this country isn’t Poland. Getting to that level of cultural uniformity is a brutal and painful process – it’s a kind of primitive accumulation of hearts and minds – and I think that’s one way of looking at what lies behind the current upheaval.

    Also from Jamie’s gaff, I was very struck (and not in a good way) by this:

    None of the Uighur he talked to thought of themselves as Chinese; they showed him maps showing China’s territorial expansion over the centuries and how it had swallowed up their country. … They could be friendly with Han from the rest of China, but hated and resented Xinjiang-born Han.

    Emphasis added. That was before the riots – relations with incoming Han aren’t so good now, clearly. But this suggests that, in terms of the underlying grievances, it’s not about immigration – nobody’s been calling for Uighur Jobs For Uighur Workers. (Sorry.) I think Sinification is a much bigger deal – or is experienced as a much bigger deal – than most of us have recognised.

  2. Madam Miaow said,

    July 16, 2009 at 10:29 am

    Great post, Splinty. You are always so readable.

    I’m sure China must have training programmes for Tibetan and Uighur workers (do many get to university?) but they evidently need an overhaul.

    It’s not as if these places are dream destinations for Hans in the same way that Brits emigrate to Spain or resituate to Kernow. Point of information: officials hate being posted to Tibet. One embassy guy once told me that, (I paraphrase) it’s akin to being sent to Siberia as sophisticated urbanites regard it as such a backwater. Plus, because the plateau is so high, they’re not actually adapted for the lower oxygen levels. When women fall pregnant, they’re usually shipped back home. Postings lasted only two or three years because of health issues (this was years ago — I don’t know if this is still the case.)

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 16, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    I do know that you get a similar thing in Russia – not many people would actually choose to be posted to Sakha or Tuva, so you need big inducements. Actually, a Canadian friend tells me they need to pay big money to get anyone to accept a posting in the northern territories.

    One of the big problems in Tibet is an enormous level of illiteracy – that university report talks at some length about the poor standard of education there, that kids in rural areas do four years in school instead of the nine that’s supposed to be standard, and implementation has been very slow. That’s an issue for the longer term, but in the short term your big problem is a pool of unskilled and only marginally employable Tibetans in the towns. They are seriously disgruntled, and they have reason to be. That then brings you back to how development needs to be tailored to the needs of the people in the west, instead of this central government idea that if you have economic development, all will be well.

  4. ejh said,

    July 16, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    not many people would actually choose to be posted to Sakha or Tuva, so you need big inducements.

    Wasn’t this a significant theme when the USSR came to an end? There were all these big industrial cities built out in Siberia and of course they had to offer people top rouble to work there. But they did, and people went out there, and then the system collapsed – so that people were still out there but without the top rouble any more or indeed any roubles at all.

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 16, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    And now you have massive depopulation in a lot of these areas. Which is the opposite situation to Xinjiang – I know that in Sakha, the Yakuts have gone from under a third of the population to over half in the space of a dozen years, basically because lots of Russians have moved out.

    And that’s also interesting in terms of the Chinese government paying top renminbi to any official willing to spend a few years in the west. Theoretically you can bridge the gap by promoting Uighur or Tibetan officials, and that’s the formal policy, but it hasn’t quite transpired in practice.

    I see the latest Weekly Worker is comparing Han migrant workers in Xinjiang to Zionist settlers on the West Bank. What did I say about the Tenuous Analogy?

  6. July 16, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    another interesting piece: http://blog.foolsmountain.com/2009/07/13/translation-letter-from-xinjiang-reflections-on-the-xinjiang-problem/ … I can remember having read somewhere, that there is a kind of “ethnic alliance” in Xinjiang between Han and Kazakhs (the latter being afraid of an “Uighur domination”)

  7. neprimerimye said,

    July 16, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    A lot of the poor sods caught up in the misnamed Cultural Revolution found themselves sent to Sinkinag. I’ll bet a lot of them found themselves raising families and longing for the careers denied them.

    More importantly very much doubt that the Uighur constitute a majority of that vast land and a national consciousness may not have developed in any definite sense. Which all rather makes the idea of national self determination, or to be concrete the formation of a nation state, rather problematic.

  8. neprimerimye said,

    July 16, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    A few figures that illustrate my point. Note that Uyghurs are a MINORITY in the province taken as a whole. Nicked from wikipedia of course!

    Major ethnic groups in Xinjiang by region, 2000 census.
    Uyghurs Han Chinese Kazakhs others
    Xinjiang 45.2% 40.6% 6.7% 7.5%
    Ürümqi PLC 12.8% 75.3% 2.3% 9.6%
    Karamay PLC 13.8% 78.1% 3.7% 4.5%
    Turpan Prefecture 70.0% 23.3% <0.1% 6.6%
    Kumul Prefecture 18.4% 68.9% 8.8% 3.9%
    Changji AP + Wujiaqu DACLC 3.9% 75.1% 8.0% 13.0%
    Bortala AP 12.5% 67.2% 9.1% 11.1%
    Bayin'gholin AP 32.7% 57.5% <0.1% 9.7%
    Aksu Prefecture + Alar DACLC 71.9% 26.6% <0.1% 1.4%
    Kizilsu AP 64.0% 6.4% <0.1% 29.6%
    Kashgar Prefecture + Tumushuke DACLC 89.3% 9.2% <0.1% 1.5%
    Khotan Prefecture 96.4% 3.3% <0.1% 0.2%
    Ili AP[notes 2] 16.1% 44.4% 25.6% 13.9%
    – Kuitun DACLC 0.5% 94.6% 1.8% 3.1%
    – former Ili Prefecture 27.2% 32.4% 22.6% 17.8%
    – Tacheng Prefecture 4.1% 58.6% 24.2% 13.1%
    – Altay Prefecture 1.8% 40.9% 51.4% 5.9%
    Shihezi DACLC 1.2% 94.5% 0.6% 3.7%

  9. ejh said,

    July 16, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    I see the latest Weekly Worker


  10. Phil said,

    July 16, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    For the avoidance of ambiguity, my reluctance to condemn the Versailles settlement as worthless should not be taken to imply that I’m currently advocating the secession of Uighurstan.

  11. jamie said,

    July 16, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Thanks for the link Splinty.

    “I see the latest Weekly Worker is comparing Han migrant workers in Xinjiang to Zionist settlers on the West Bank. ”

    I’ve seen some vague signs that nationalist opinion in China – at least at the blog post cum BBS flamewar level – may be starting to takie a pro-Israeli slant on the analogy Tibet/Palestine. If so, the Xinjiang events would probably accelerate that.

    han migrants aren;t really being sent to Xinjiang in the way that they used to be, though they are certainly being encouraged. It’s a boom economy and there are plenty of pull factors operating without state encouragement. A lot of people were rusticated to Xinjiang after Mao called time on the Great Cult Revolt. But the place was developed after 1949 specifically as a military colony on the “farmer soldier” model through the Bingtuan. I think this contributed a lot towards the intensity of feeling against the Han.

  12. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 16, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    The fenqing are endearingly eccentric on international affairs, aren’t they?

    Maybe it’s because I can read Russian but don’t know Mandarin at all, but I keep thinking of the various development plans the SU used to run in the Stans. All these new industries seemed to end up employing Russians while the Kazakhs and Tajiks and so on either stayed out in the countryside or ended up doing unskilled labour. Didn’t really make for ethnic harmony in the long run.

  13. ejh said,

    July 17, 2009 at 7:42 am

    Can I ask about this business about Tibet and four years’ schooling? Does that mean that in Tibet only four years are compulsory?

  14. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 17, 2009 at 9:34 am

    As I understand it, theoretically nine years are compulsory throughout the PRC. But in the remote rural parts of Tibet it seems to be four years in practice. Hence the situation they’re complaining about that in the countryside everybody speaks Tibetan, but hardly anybody outside the monasteries is literate in it.

    It’s different in the towns of course, but there you have the pressures of Sinification.

  15. ejh said,

    July 17, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    But in the remote rural parts of Tibet it seems to be four years in practice.

    I thought you meant that. But that just makes me wonder whether it means “the average attendance is four years” or “although officially they’re supposed to be there for nine years, unofficially kids are withdrawn after four”. Either way it’s odd that even in remote rural areas the Chinese state can’t enforce the school-attendance law.

  16. chjh said,

    July 18, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    One of the things that missing here, I think, is any consideration of what responsibility the Chinese police/armed forces have for the violence. Seeing this just as a ‘race riot’ seems to argue that the Uighurs reactions came out of nowhere. Many of the first reports spoke of an initially peaceful rally, and hearing gunshots as the violence developed. Who is most likely to have guns, and to have opened fire?

    Which is of course part of the mix that fuels Uighur (and Tibetan anger) – the rules of engagement are quite fundamentally different in ‘Mass Group Incidents’ when the forces of the state are facing ethnic minority crowds. If you read through accounts of MGIs in China proper, there are relatively few deaths, and mostly as the result of individual cops going over the top. Time and time again, in Xinjiang and Tibet, the police and army shoot to kill.

    The Gongmeng report looks enormously important in explaining the ethnic fractures on the ground in Tibet, but it’s important to remember that the ‘Go West’ strategy isn’t that different from what China’s been doing in Xinjiang since the mid-1950s. So while in Tibet this is a qualitative shift from the previous economic policy of not-so-benign neglect, in Xinjiang this has been going on for decades.

    I also think that Madame Miaow is wrong in generalising from Han reactions to life in Tibet. For many Han Chinese – particularly ex-soldiers staying in Xinjiang after their discharge – life in Xinjiang is as good as, if not better, than back home. There’s a useful, sympathetic account on on a pro-Uighur website here, which also gives a good overview of the Bingtuan, the PLA’s economic development corps in Xinjiang.

    Lastly, I think it’s misleading to talk of the Stalinist concept of the “oppressor nation”. Marx and Engels used a very similar idea when talking about Britain and Ireland, and when Stalin wrote Marxism and the national question he was summarising the ideas of the Bolshevik Party, rather than innovating. Lenin uses the concept repeatedly, particularly in his attacks on Great-Russian chauvinism. That doesn’t prove the concept correct, of course, but it is rather more embedded in Marxism than was suggested.

  17. July 22, 2009 at 8:08 am

    a try to analyze the conflict in a “Thompsonian” way: Uyghur Commoners against the New Enclosures in Xinjiang, China (on LibCom)

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